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Sunday, May 01, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Laura Sellers-Earl
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USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin combines forces on major efforts and helps separate newsgathering from production

By Joel Christopher

When the Wisconsin Department of Justice waited until a Friday afternoon to release 96 videos related to a police shooting, editors at The Post-Crescent in Appleton knew they’d be able to put eyes on every second of every video right away because help was just a phone call away.

The videos, some more than an hour long, were divvied up into manageable groups, and assigned to journalists across USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, 10 newsrooms that are linked in myriad ways. We call it the Power of 10, and the concept of a collective newsroom that spans multiple markets throughout the state has proved itself time and again in the 14 months since we created it.

There isn’t an American newsroom that has been untouched by the unprecedented upheaval in print journalism, and the unavoidable response to the decade-long cutting of journalists has been to reduce, reduce, reduce. The results have been ugly: less reporting and more superficial coverage.

Our network hasn’t been immune to the pressures, and underwent significant reductions in 2015 as the Gannett Wisconsin newsrooms reorganized 130-plus journalists into USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. We have been able to reverse the trends, however, by combining forces on major efforts, consolidating production in a single team and separating newsgathering from production. 

Our coverage has become deeper and more sophisticated. Newsmakers increasingly are recognizing the quality and power of our reporting. 

Consider this:

• When the Green Bay Packers announced in August an aggressive, multimillion dollar plan to create an entertainment district adjacent to Lambeau Field, team officials sat down first with Green Bay Press-Gazette reporter Richard Ryman to give him an exclusive briefing on the project. Ryman is the Packers Business reporter, a position created in our reorganization and unique to USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. 

• When The Post-Crescent in Appleton published an exclusive report this month identifying the prime suspect in a 10-year-old unsolved murder, police held a news conference the next day solely to affirm the accuracy of the newsroom’s account and referred other media to the story by reporters Duke Behnke and Jim Collar. 

• When state and local authorities refused to release the police videos I referred to earlier, a source last month leaked a critical one that showed inconsistencies in the official account exclusively to a USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin reporter. 

Our readers have taken note. April’s year-over-year metrics show USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin’s unique visitors were up 24.2 percent, and the number of visits increased 25.9 percent. 

Other journalists are paying attention, too. In December, Columbia Journalism Review wrote about how our investigative team rolled out a deeply reported and richly layered report on disparities in sentencing by Wisconsin judges. 
In March, Poynter published a piece about our groundbreaking reporting on deficiencies in mental health care for children and teenagers and the public events we’ve staged in conjunction to the series. 

The state of our journalism union is strong and getting stronger. The process, though, hasn’t been easy. The first few months after the reorganization were difficult, to say the least. Our staffs were reeling from the process that resulted in lost jobs for friends and colleagues. Our centralized production team struggled to get a grasp on digital, social and print responsibilities for 11 websites and their associated social brand channels, 10 daily newspapers and a slew of nondaily publications.

Some keys to our success:

• We created a sophisticated online story budgeting tool that allows anyone in the network to see what content is planned for online and print in any newsroom, and includes a breaking news function to alert producers to urgent stories.

• We created statewide teams to focus on the important work like investigations that operate separate from any single newsroom.

• We went deeper in specialization on our production team, creating social media shifts, for example, to boost our social efforts. That effort resulted in a doubling of social media posts and double-digit percentage increase in social referrals.

• We constantly emphasize collegiality, repeating over and over again that everyone has to assume everyone else is coming from a place of good intentions, and that difficult conversations have to occur face-to-face or by phone and never through email or instant messaging. That’s critical in an operation that spans dozens of cities and two states (our print design and layout are handled in Des Moines by one of the Gannett Design Studios).

• We insisted that newsrooms leave virtually all production to producers so reporters, photographers and editors could focus on content. That was a big mindset change, but has helped build the quality and quantity of our reporting.

• We consistently use common packaging across all 10 newspapers when it makes sense, and common branding for statewide efforts under the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin name. Readers simply don’t care as long as the stories are resonant for their communities.

• We have constantly adjusted. We publicly said from Day One of the reorganization that we knew we wouldn’t get it all right, and we didn’t. But we have fixed every problem as it became evident, including tough solutions that included changing job descriptions and eliminating some positions to create new ones. 

The network showed how much it has matured at the end of April when a teenage gunman was shot and killed by police after he shot and wounded two high schoolers outside a prom. Reporters, photographers and editors from four of our newsrooms provided dynamic coverage to all our newsrooms, including the newly acquired Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and our nationwide USA TODAY NETWORK. 

The coverage, I’ll note, was the most-read reporting that weekend for USA TODAY. Not bad for a 1-year-old network.

Joel Christopher is vice president of news for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.

Associated Press Media Editors

APME is a professional network, a resource for helping editors and broadcasters improve their news coverage and newsroom operations.

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